In the fall of 1995 (and for some reason again in the fall of 1996), Marvel decided to counter the increase in the cost of their monthly books by publishing a handful of titles at the low, low price of 99 cents.
They were, by and large, awful, mostly because these weren’t regular, monthly comics with a low price, they were disposable works created by editors and new artists to keep the costs down.
Written primarily by editors at Marvel, Avengers Unplugged is notable for one reason: artist MC Wyman seems to shift styles from each issue, at one point doing an impression of Marc Silvestri that has to be full of swipes, it’s that accurate. I know I’ve seen some of these panels in Silvestri’s Uncanny X-Men run, I just can’t quite put my finger on which issues. Maybe you’ll have better luck. But it’s astounding and I can’t find anything online about it.
Fantastic Four Unplugged
This series is just as bad as Avengers Unplugged but without the intrigue of trying to figure out just what the hell the artist is doing. As with all the comics in this line, every story is disposable.
You know, disposable isn’t a bad thing, really. In terms of superhero comics, disposable usually means not significant, not connected to other events. There have been a ton of great comics that could be considered disposable. But they have to be enjoyable, too, and none of these stories are remotely enjoyable.
Over the Edge
Over the Edge was intended to be an additional book in Marvel’s short lived “Edge” line of books. Each issue featured a different character from the line, be it Daredevil, Ghost Rider, or Dr. Strange.
What stood out about Over the Edge was the art (on 75% of the books) by Robert Brown, a poor man’s Todd McFarlane. That would be the obvious take on his artwork.
But for some reason I think it’s great. His work has less scale than McFarlane’s — literally, his perspectives are always further away, his panels less dramatic, his layouts not as kinetic. But there’s something appealing, like you can see the potential there beyond just a McFarlane knock off.
I have no idea what he’s doing these days.
Professor Xavier and the X-Men
Not long after she started doing regular work for Marvel in the 90s, Jan Duursema modified her style so that it was more in keeping with what Marvel was publishing. It wasn’t horrible, not compared to other comics on the stands, but it was clearly different than what Duursema had been doing over at DC on Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
Still, her work on AD&D has her forever in my heart and I’m sure a book like this did wonders for her profile, although I’m not sure if her time on X-Factor came before or after.
That said, these stories are even more disposable than the rest of this line. They are simple retellings of the very first X-Men stories by Stan and Jack. Yet somehow, this ends up being the second longest running book in this line. I guess you could put an X on anything in the 90s and it would sell.
You have to assume from the drastically changed style that Dave Hoover used on this series, that it was intended for younger audiences. That’s a solid plan, really: use a series that’s under a buck, drawn in a style more like cartoons, telling self-contained stories.
But that was also the problem. Each issue featured a different character and, as the title would suggest, told their origin. But there wasn’t enough of a through line to entice regular readers and inspire regular support.
It’s not a bad concept, though, and one which both Marvel and DC would try numerous times to varying degrees of success. In the end, comic book readers love continuity.
Untold Tales of Spider-man
We save the best for last.
High school Peter Parker is the ideal, and that’s coming from someone who prefers twentysomething Peter Parker. But there’s a reason every mainstream iteration of Peter Parker places him in high school: that’s the core of Spider-man.
This is why Marvel has been trying for years to get Peter Parker back to that state, either by actually putting in high school again (Ultimate Spider-man) or regularly trying to make him less mature.
Most of Spider-man’s original adventures while he was in high school took place in a single book, Amazing Spider-man, which means there was plenty of space between issues to uncover some extra stories. There was lots of wide open space for creative minds to work.
Those creative minds were writer Kurt Busiek and penciller Patrick Oliffe and what they put together was magic.
It’s not just that Untold Tales of Spider-man featured great stories and amazing art, it’s that the stories managed to be self-contained and episodic at the same time, the sweet spot of monthly comics. They introduced new characters who were great enough to pop up in the modern day Marvel books while touching on established characters in ways that not only enhanced them, but introduce nuance to their relationships with Spider-man.
Untold Tales of Spider-man lasted longer than any of the other titles and even received annuals and a special. It was a great book.
Ultimately, the 99 cent line was doomed from the start. It wasn’t essential by any means, which meant longtime fans weren’t picking it up, and the creative teams on most of the books left a lot to be desired, which wasn’t great for potential new readers. In the case of this line, you really did get what you paid for.